But Not Yet


St. Augustine and Refusal of the Call

St. Augustine was born Aurelius Augustinus in Algeria, in the north of Africa, in the year of our Lord three hundred and fifty-four.  His understanding of the world, our relationship with God, and each of our relationships with one another would one day surpass that of all others, and he would be canonized for his extraordinary teachings.  But not yet.

For all was without form, and void to the newborn saint.  And God said, “Let there be light.”  And there was light.  And he saw that it was good.  And he received the comfort of his Christian mother’s milk, and it was good; it was the food of infancy bestowed upon him from God through mother and nurse, and they lovingly gave to him that which was given to them.  “For from thee, O God, are all good things, and from my God is all my health.”[1]

Gradually, then, the young saint became conscious of where he was.  He wished to express his desires to those who could fulfill them, yet he found that he could not; his desires were within while they were without, and they could no more enter into his spirit than he could enter into theirs.  He would one day pray, “I acknowledge Thee, Lord of heaven and earth, and praise Thee for my first rudiments of being, and my infancy, whereof I remember nothing; for Thou hast appointed that man should from others guess much as to himself[.]”[2]  But not yet.

In time, Augustine became no longer a speechless infant, but a speaking boy.  He was given no special instruction in how to produce speech; he simply cried and moved his limbs until others satisfied his desires.  When they would utter sounds along with their succor, the boy associated these sounds with fulfillment, so he would attempt to mimic their sounds until he could effectively replicate them at will.  He quickly gathered a collection of these utterances as they were pronounced by others, and he even began to perceive emotion in their expressions, which he found he could then use to better express his own increasingly complex desires. In this way, the boy learned to speak Latin, the tongue of his parents and lingua franca of the Roman world.  And this is precisely how each of us learned to speak our own native language.

Through practiced use of the word, Augustine would eventually contemplate the locus of language itself, saying, “I name the image of the sun, and that image is present in my memory. For I recall not the image of its image, but the image itself is present to me, calling it to mind. I name memory, and I recognize what I name. And where do I recognize it, but in the memory itself?”[3] Reflecting upon his memory of the sun would ultimately shine light upon the workings of his own mind—and the light shineth in darkness.  But not yet.

For he would first have to explore the dark side.

There stood a pear tree in the yard of one of his neighbors, full of ripe pears, a year’s worth of fruit, and in the dark streets there roamed a gang of adolescents, loitering boys with nothing better to pursue than malicious mischief, at least one of them a future saint.

With no particular aim in mind, the boys shook that tree and caused all of its fruit to fall to the ground.  The boys ate a few bites but took no delight in the pears themselves, so they threw them to the hogs, who no doubt found the pears quite tasty and fulfilling.  The boys reveled not in the bounty but in the crime itself.  Augustine would later recount, “Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself!”[4]

Yet, in reflecting upon the memory of his sin, Augustine would begin to see more clearly his own mind.  He came to see virtue in peace, and viciousness in discord: “[I]n the first I observed a unity, but in the other, a sort of division.  And in that unity I conceived the rational soul, and the nature of truth.”[5]  Augustine referred to the soul united in virtuous obedience to God as a monad, denoting oneness with truth, while calling any soul devoted to viciousness and discord a duad, signifying its determined separation from peaceful unity with God.

Having discovered virtue in unity, Augustine applied this concept to mind itself, for it is in memory’s unification of sensory experiences impinging upon the brain that each mind generates a person’s identity and sense of self.  And it is in the deepest recesses of memory that the obedient mind discovers God—beneath the memory of corporeal images, and far below the memory of affections—in the mind’s memory of mind itself, though God is not in the mind but is, in fact, the very God of mind, such that whenever we call upon the God that we know and have learned, we find that which we seek in our own mind, our own memory.[6]

Similarly, Augustine concluded that the soul is created from nothing but time, the successive processing of experiences occurring in the mind.  While the philosophers of his day followed Plato in teaching that time is a result of the movement of celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, the planets and stars—Augustine realized that time is actually a dimension of mind, a psychological condition produced through the mind’s unification of successive memories.  This unification of memories continually modifies the mind itself; thus time is inextricably bound to change, and since God is unchanging, God is therefore timeless, that is, eternal.[7]  In time, as a result of processing memories such as these, Augustine would realize that consecration with God is simply a matter of changing one’s mind—from the vicious discord of disunity to that of peaceful accord with unity—which he could accomplish in less than a second.  But not yet.

He would first move across the Mediterranean Sea to Milan, Italy, the imperial residence of Rome, where the young man taught Latin rhetoric and lived with his longtime lover, who had born him a son, Adeodatus, “the gift of God.”  That is, he lived with her until Monica, the future saint’s devoted mother, also crossed the sea and sent the uneducated and lower class woman back to Carthage so Augustine could marry a respectable Italian woman and eventually aspire to the Roman bureaucracy.  He was then betrothed to a youthful heiress, but he did not love her and she was still too young to marry, so he instead took to the bed of another woman, whom he also did not love.[8]

Recalling how he had learned to speak as an infant, Augustine believed that learning to write well requires reading exemplary writings and responding in kind, just as learning how to speak had been solely a matter of mimicking those around him who could satisfy his desires.  So that is how he taught the art of persuasion to his students of rhetoric.  And he practiced what he preached.  The young professor read broadly and deeply the greatest philosophical authors of his day:  Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and, of course, Cicero, considered by many to be Rome’s greatest orator and writer of prose.  He was mightily moved by each of them, but still none of them offered the whole philosophical package that he was yearning to read.  He would probably just have to write it himself.  But not yet.

While still in Carthage, he had fallen in with a group of followers of Manicheism, a cult devoted to the teachings of Mani, who taught an extremely ascetic form of revulsion from the evils of the material world, which Augustine found attractive and which gave him his first notions of the good monad, [9] as opposed to the evil duad that indwelt his own mind.  He took up with the Manichees in Italy as well, but he was starting to see that Mani relied too heavily on poetic myth, and too little on substantive philosophy.

Then it was that Augustine met Ambrose, the Catholic bishop of Milan.  Ambrose was highly educated, and well versed in the three principles of Plotinus—the One, the Intellect, and the Soul—which dovetailed nicely with Augustine’s own thinking on the monad.  Moreover, Ambrose was steeped in the writings of St. Paul, whose epistles were relished by Monica but not by her son.  At the same time, Augustine met other Christians such as Simplicianus, an avid reader of Porphyry, the Lebanese student of Plotinus, who in the fourth century had published his teacher’s Enneads, dealing with Neoplatonic views on ethics, cosmology, knowledge, reality, being, and the One that is above it all.[10]

And the Spirit of God moved within the deepest reaches of Augustine’s mind.  And God said, “Let there be light.”  And there was light.  And the light shineth in darkness, and Augustine understood that there exists in the mind a capacity to know truth which far transcends its abilities to correlate the factual sensory inputs coming from the body.  The mind, he came to see, yearns to be satisfied by truth, and is repulsed by deceit and falsehood.  For truth is not the static possession of facts, or even knowledge, but an ever deepening relationship with the deepest reaches of the mind, that is, with God.[11]

So he began to write, for Augustine saw in himself one who writes as he progresses and progresses as he writes.[12]  And in writing, the professor of rhetoric soon realized that the Gospel of John was itself written by one inspired by the Word of God.  The Apostle had something to say; he said it!  And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.  And Augustine came to see his own blindness in condemning the truth that had always been there, right in front of him, the Christian beliefs of his mother.  And he asked himself, “Can it at any time or place be unjust to love God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind; and his neighbor as himself?”[13]  And in time, Augustine would enlighten the world through his answer to this very question.  But not yet.

He continued to struggle with his call to Christianity, yet he was loath to give up his wanton ways, his love of lust, and he actually feared that God would hear his prayers and cure him of the disease of concupiscence, his passion, his sexual desire.[14]  At the same time, Augustine knew that he should mend his ways and devote himself solely to God, writing, “[W]hen I was deliberating upon serving the Lord my God now, as I had long purposed, it was I who willed, I who nilled, I, I myself. I neither willed entirely, nor nilled entirely. Therefore was I at strife with myself, and rent asunder by myself.”  And this realization led Augustine to see the vacillating mind with greater clarity, writing, “The mind commands the body, and it obeys instantly; the mind commands itself, and is resisted.”[15]  And this led him to see that when a person deliberates, “one soul fluctuates between contrary wills,”[16] monad and duad.

In his mental strife, Augustine sank into a deepening depression.  He quit his job, having lost his voice, and began weeping uncontrollably, unable to catch his breath, praying, “How long, how long, ‘to-morrow, and tomorrow?’ Why not now?  Why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?”  He dragged himself out of bed and walked outside into the garden, weeping bitterly in the light of day, when suddenly he heard a child chanting, Tolle legge!  Tolle legge!  Take up and read!  Take up and read!  Augustine took this as nothing less than a command from God, so he opened the Bible that lay nearby and read the first thing to appear there, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 13:13-14:  Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence.  He set the book down and read no further, later writing that “instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” [17]  And the light shineth in darkness.

Did the saint’s now opened eyes also skim across the page and subconsciously take in the second Great Commandment just four verses above:  Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself?  Augustine does not say, but we know that he was subsequently baptized by Ambrose and soon returned to Algeria, where he was later elected bishop in the city of Hippo.  As bishop, he wrote and progressed, progressed and wrote, and began to refine and publish his theology for the edification of his clergy and congregations, each new book another step in the staircase upon which we traverse time in our ascent to the eternal.[18]

St. Augustine would ultimately progress to the point of writing that all inquiry into the reality of God comes down to the question of how we understand love, for the love of the Creator is intrinsic to the mind of all rational creatures.  He saw that love is like gravity, unceasingly pulling us toward the object of our love.  Therefore, “let us love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.”[19]

“We move closer to God,” he wrote, “not by walking but by loving.”[20]

And he did.

[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey (public domain book, 2009), 3.

[2] 5.

[3] 159.

[4] 21.

[5] 51

[6] 166.

[7] Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 76.

[8] 16.

[9] 14-15.

[10] 17.

[11] 53.

[12] 1.

[13] Augustine, 34.

[14] 119.

[15] 121.

[16] 122.

[17] 125.

[18] Chadwick, 66.

[19] Augustine, 224.

[20] Chadwick, 54.

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